Drought endangers newly planted trees in Santa Fe

It seemed like a perfect plan. Until, that is, New Mexico’s merciless drought sucked the life out of it.

In March, contractors hired by Santa Fe County harvested some 15,000 willow stalks growing in thick clumps along lower portions of the Santa Fe River.

The workers soaked the willows in water for five days — a move intended to give their roots a boost — and then transplanted them upstream as part of a long-running river reconstruction and trail project known as the Santa Fe River Greenway.

“We did the plantings [in March] so that the willows went in while they were still dormant and before they budded, which gives them their best chance of survival,” said Scott Kaseman, Santa Fe River Greenway project manager.

Over the course of two weeks, the thousands of willows, along with 142 cottonwood saplings, were planted along the banks of the usually dry riverbed between Frenchy’s Field and Siler Road, an area currently under construction as part of the greenway project.

“We were counting on an average year of snowpack to have our standard release [of water in the Santa Fe River], which can last for weeks sometimes,” Kaseman explained. “If there wasn’t that significant of a runoff, then as a backup, if we had a living water release, then we thought we could count on that.”

But what little snowpack that Santa Fe received in the mountains melted off rapidly this year, and the so-called “living river” releases may be more like a trickle.

“With target flows projected to be at the minimum level of 300 acre-feet, it seems unlikely that a significant amount of the target flows will reach the new plantings,” according to city documents.

Under the city’s Living River Ordinance, up to 1,000 acre-feet of water is scheduled to be released annually into the Santa Fe River from the reservoirs in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed. But that depends on the availability of water, which is in short supply this year.

Now, the thousands of young trees are in peril — and city and county officials are grappling with how to give them enough water to develop healthy, extensive roots in the parched soil, which would increase their chances to survive.

Earlier this year, the county asked the city to do a one-time pulse release on the Santa Fe River.

“Pulses are designed to mimic natural cycles,” said Melissa McDonald, the city’s river and watershed coordinator. “Since our river is somewhat controlled by releases, the pulse would mimic what happens in nature, so we would be sending increased flow of water downstream, which would effectively water the willows.”

But in the midst of a persistent drought, the city reluctantly rejected the county’s request.

“We had our hands tied with the fact that we have a bypass constraint [that restricts how much water can be released into the river], and we’re not even doing pulses this year,” McDonald said.

At the request of the county, the city explored other options, including using effluent water from the city’s wastewater treatment plant. But after evaluating the permitting required to use effluent, “it seems that the permitting would be too slow to allow this option to be timely,” according to city documents.

Another option: Tap into the city-owned Osage Well, which could deliver water to the river channel just upstream of the newly planted section of the river trail.

“I remember a couple of years ago, there was a fire upstream and then the rains came and it swept a whole bunch of debris and soot into the Rio Grande and we had to shut down the [Buckman Direct Diversion] for a number of days,” Councilor Chris Rivera, a former city fire chief, said at a recent Finance Committee meeting.

“If we ran into some situation like that where we’re running minimum capacity up at the reservoirs, BDD is down and we’re having to use all our wells, we’re in a world of hurt at that point,” he said.

City Councilor Signe Lindell and others questioned the wisdom of the county planting thousands of young trees during a drought.

“I’d like to have some more trees at my house, but I determined that we’re in a drought and that it wasn’t really prudent for me to plant trees,” Lindell said. “I would think that professionals would’ve maybe thought that through a little bit more.”

“I’ve been here 15 years and it’s as bad as I’ve seen in 15 years,” he said.

“We do have the contractor doing supplemental watering to get them through to the monsoons, but nothing can beat getting the channel bed soaked really well,” he said.

“The county already had the funding and design completed, so they went ahead and did the river restoration and trail construction,” Kaseman said. “But since the area is (now) within city limits, the city agreed to take over the maintenance and operation after the 12-month warranty period has taken place.”

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